Another year of work in Missouri has drawn to a close. Mike and I just packed our car up yesterday, said our goodbyes, and drove into the sunrise on our annual migration east. This is a gross over-simplification of the process of wrapping up however. I have come to finally admit to myself that ever year October and November are going to be extremely busy, full months, this year being no different. A sense of urgency and impending deadline sets in mid October, with the certain knowledge of the drop in temperature to come and much to wrap up.
This year, our biggest concern was finishing the exterior plaster before temperatures plunged below freezing and both the process of making plaster (involving bare feet for stomp-mixing up batches of sand-clay-straw plaster) and the process of it drying adequately would both become near impossible. We truly have our friend Tyler to thank for the fact that we made that deadline with several weeks of warm weather afterward to spare. Tyler ended up staying and helping us for over a month, and was instrumental to getting our second coat of plastering done. We also had a second plastering work party, which greatly helped us get a good jump start on the process amidst good conversation and company. For the entire day before Mike and our friend Fran mixed batches of plaster until we had quite a reserve built up, while I finished up trim detailing around doors and windows(the trim and assorted detailing actually took us a good week before the second coat could go on). Needless to say, many batches of clay plaster were made and applied onto bales between the first and second coats. In some places, it seems like it is almost four inches thick!
This brings me to one of the lessons learned from our strawbale building process this year. Somewhere in the process of stacking up our bale walls, we stopped tracking the levelness of the walls with quite the same fastidiousness that we had started with. Despite reading warnings in natural building books about this tendency, we just got off, with several corners and spots along the wall flaring out quite a bit. I think we just got so frustrated with the tedious process of notching bales around our timberframe that we started saying “good enough” and assuming we could whack the bales into levelness later. Problem was that our bale pinning system (staking and screwing wooden stakes to framing) worked really, really well. We were throwing ourselves with force against the wall and it just would not budge. We tried chain-saw trimming parts and reshaping protrusions, and still, the big bulges would not go away. We built out plaster in low spots, and put in on thin in high spots, but the waviness persisted. So ultimately, we just made our peace with an undulating wall that does not hide the fact that it is composed of bales and not your average stud frame construction. Oh well!
The next big hurdle in the building process was getting doors in and siding up to further protect the walls. We decided on half-wall siding to protect the lower part of the walls that would be receiving the most weather—splash back rain and snow drifts, etc. The earthen plaster does a great job of letting the strawbales “breath” so that moisture doesn’t buildup excessively to the point where mold can flourish (this has been a problem in many cement-stuccoed SB buildings simply because cement does not breath well. The same is true with many well-intentioned world heritage site restoration projects of old adobe and cob buildings which have nearly disintegrated under a protective coating of cement stucco! The restorations have all had to be redone using earthen stucco!) The only downside to clay-based plaster is that it isn’t permanent, it has to be reapplied periodically as it weathers.
|Ben Law's Woodland House in England|
As for siding, we decided for siding to go with something readily available locally, which is white oak cut by our Amish friend Ivan who has a mill five miles away. We love the look of the live-edge siding on Ben Law’s house (the English roundwood timberframer who inspired the frame of our house as well). So we asked Ivan to keep one edge of our siding unmilled, just the raw bark or the logs. What resulted is kind of an organic unpredictable edge that one visitor hilariously named “the smurf house look”! My parents came down to help us again and together we cut and hung the lower boards. This is an understatement as this took us all about a week of hustle and bustle in the last of the warmish fall weather and the first of the can't-feel-fingers winter weather that blasted in. A huge thank you to them for helping us to the finish line! Mike mostly did the trickier high gable ends with help from Brian and I, again no small feat. Note the purple flashing sticking out from the bottom, which will be where we tie in a porch roof next year.
Another tedious step for us this past month was closing in the underside of the soffiting, connecting the roof to the walls. We need our roof to be vented, to let in cool air flow from the bottom of the roof to the vent built into the ridge cap, so that ice dams don't happen (the idea is to keep the roof surface cool, to counteract heat escaping the roof from melting snow and creating ice that forces its way under the roof and into the walls causing water damage). This seems excessively detailed, I know, but it is a big issue for a lot of houses so most builders vent roofs in cold climates now if they don't have cold attic space to serve the same function. For this venting/closing in we went into mouse-paranoia mode, constantly scanning for where mice could infiltrate, as they surely will. We used plywood (stained darker with linseed oil and natural pigments) and a prefabricated metal flashing piece with little perforations to let air in. Oh the detailing! Every little crack and seam now filled in, we get to cross a seriously inglorious "to do" off of our list. It is satisfying to think that our exterior is pretty much done and no more high ladder work will be necessary next year.
One of the more satisfying things we did in our last week was to clean out the straw mountain that had formed over the course of baling. I have been itching to do this for some time, but finally! My parents helped, loading up huge tarps full of straw and dragging them over to our soon-to-be garden site for mulch next year (yes, you read it correctly! We are taking the garden plunge next year! Woo hoo!)
On our second to last day, our neighbor Jake came down with three horses and his plow and we took a look at the soil together, deciding it was not too frosty to be plowed up for next year's garden site. The frost will help break up the compacted ribbons of sod that were smoothly flipped over as Jake passed back and forth with the animals. The nice thing about horses is that their small hoof size does not compact the soil as they work, unlike tractors that can create a compacted subsoil horizon, just below what is plowed. Next spring we will add compost and manure and straw and form raised beds. It is a huge sized plot (Jake really went for it), and we figure we will plant cover crops on a good bit of it to help feed the soil until we are ready to use it all. I am just so excited about it though, nothing like a waiting garden bed to plant the seed of upcoming spring in one's mind.
Getting doors in has been a challenge as well, complete with its own learning curve. We bought nice second hand doors for probably a quarter of the price of new ones. Trouble was, they didn't come with frames and I optimistically decided to build some to fit. Doors are one of the trickiest things to get to fit well. If hung off-level, you will have a door that constantly swings out or in. If fit too snugly in its frame, swelling wood with seasonal humidity can make it not shut properly. And so on. Suffice to say, there are adjustments that need to be made to both doors in the spring (one too snug, one too gappy), but the are both shut for now. We hunted and hunted for a front door that would do justice to the character of the house and would still be in our miserly price range, but we just didn't find it this year. We opted for the very affordable "plywood and screws" door option instead, for now.
As you can see in the above interior shots, we have quite a bit of plastering yet to go on the inside, another layer of finish flooring upstairs and down, rafter and floor cavities to stuff with cellulose insulation and a stack of ceiling boards to tack up. There are partition walls between upstairs bedrooms and downstairs bathroom to put on as well. Plumbing, a set of stairs and a stove instalation, oh, and a wrap around porch with several roofs, an attached pantry and sunroom yet to attach... BUT it feels like we are so close to being finished! (I can hear you laughing.) I suppose it is all relative, we have come such a long, marathonish way that the last five miles seem like nothing. But honestly, I am glad for a break from it all for a few months. And it has come right in time for the icicles to start forming and NW winds to start blasting. Goodbye house, may you withstand the winter onslaught!